Sunday, September 21, 2008

Public address!

How do you address a stranger in a public space, in case you ever need to? How are you addressed? Have you noticed changes in such modes of address, over the years?

When I was young, everyone in Delhi was related to everyone else- you were, to the public at large, depending on your age and sex, either "beta" (son), "Bhaisahib" (older brother), "Bhaiya" (brother), "Chachaji" or Uncle, usually pronounced 'Unkil', or, if really venerably old, "Baba" or Dadaji (Grandfather) if male, and "bitiya" or "baby" ( not like 'babe', though)"Behenji" or "Didi" (elder sister), "Maasiji" or the ubiquitous Auntie, and "Mataji" (mother) if you looked old enough to be the person's mother.
(Or, as in Lucknow, if you had children and were, therefore, a mother. My grey-haired dhobi-in-residence insisted on addressing me as Mataji when my kids were really young). Like it or not, every member of the public whom you interacted with you was your kith and kin.

Which is not to say that some of these relationships were not incestuous in intent- buses and streets had a huge share of creepy guys even then. Some things never change.

As a child I hated it. How could these random people presume kinship with me? I realise I was a terrible snob. All these relationships thrust upon me! Of course this was probably because I had spent my early childhood in England, and this was just one of the shocks that the mother country jolted me with.

Having grown up in this enormous joint family that was Delhi, then having left it for decades after getting married, I had a reverse culture shock when we moved to Noida a few years ago.
Noida is part of the National Capital Region and I was frequently in and out of Delhi.
The humungous Dilli joint family had got globalised, and I was no longer any random stranger's Behenji or Auntieji. I had morphed into an unrelated 'Madam', a word that denies any form of kinship beyond the business at hand! Men were still part of a universal brotherhood, though some have graduated from "Bhaisahib" to "Sir ji", but as more and more women stepped out of the familiar roles of teacher or nurse or 'lady doctor', and assumed a more corporate character, the man in the street no longer seemed to relate to you in familial terms. After years of being part of a huge joint family, you had been disowned.
Madam is not a term that incorporates any degree of familiarity or kinship. The phonetics of the word are sadly, rather damning. 'Madam', when uttered by the disgruntled, emphasises the second syllable. Emphasising the first makes it no better! It only sounds polite if your first name is put before it, which will of course, only occur in a familiar setting. I wonder, though, how much resentment is hidden by a now ubiquitous term. Women have emerged from their homes, from their known, familial roles, and have taken on all kinds of occupations, many of them have several men reporting to them. This is still a relatively new phenomenon in India, and will take some getting used to. Women who appear to belong to a social stratum with power and wealth are often treated with surface deference and underlying resentment, especially by men. Even women who drive their own vehicles are largely castigated by resentful males, who somewhere seem to question a woman's right to own/drive a car. So much of this is subconscious and subliminal, but centuries of patriarchal conditioning will not be erased in just a few generations.

Kolkata is still a more affectionate city, as this post by Lalita shows, though our opinions on this are very different!
'Madam' is now part of the global culture we all seem to aspire to or have thrust upon us, willy-nilly.
If only it was uttered with a little more respect.


Usha said...

When I worked in a bank, I used to be surprised at the refusal by my male colleagues to call me by name whether they were older or of same age. They insisted on calling their female colleagues "maydum" and so I was Usha maydum. I used to hate that. Why waste a perfectly good name by refusing to use it?
In Chennai they don't tend to use relationships so much except perhaps the ubiquitous amma. But in Bengaluru it is a lot more common - anna, akka, amma are always appended.

Monika said...

I agree with lalita on this I would be prefer to be called madam then behenji, auntie or worst down south amma..... :)

Indian in NZ said...

S'cuse me !!!! its a mere "s'cuse me" here, irrelevant of age or gender....s'cuse me, is that seat taken? s'cuse me, what's the time? s'cuse me, are you in the queue? s'cuse me, can I pass through...

If you know the name of the person then its always the first name, again irrespective of age/gender/posiion/job.

Thank God, there's no behenji, mataji, madam/ji or amma here - my kids would have been really amused !

Mystic Margarita said...

In Kolkata, people always used to address me didi or bon during the growing up/college/post-college years. Quaint as they sound, I still prefer the relation-specific addresss than the impersonal madam, though hope no one calls me auntyji anytime soon!

the mad momma said...

i dont mind anything. seems like no one calls me anymore at all!

Space Bar said...

will dig out link on kafila about the use of the word 'bhaiyya'. makes for interesting reading. esp in light of your previous post.

Preethi said...

once when Cheeky was younger a random street vendor walked up to the gate and yelled "Amma" Amma" Cheeky ran up to me bemused.. amma someone is calling you he said!

Another time a neighbor taught her daughter to call me "Athai" (thats Bua - dad's sister) , I have to wonder was she telling me her husband was off limits... need not have gone to such lengths!! :P

My son says Excuse me sir/madam to random strangers!

Anonymous said...

I'd rather be Madam or Madamji than Chintu/Chikli/Babli ki Ma or Aunti (unti0 as the Haryanvis pronounce it

SUR NOTES said...

many moons ago, my mum, who is an HR consultant, was called madam by a senior manager in the company where she was consulting.
she promptly replied, but i am no owner of any kind of a brothel.please call me by name.
she is mean, my mother.

but to date, if someone calls me madam i giggle and imagine myself lounging in a violet boudoir. but since, unlike my mother who is mean, i am a nice soul, i reply, jee bhaia, kya hua?

and i love the familial ties all around- amma, beti, bauji, bhaisaheb, saar, ma, bhabiji...all fine with me.

even madam is fine- but i will smile and look dreamy for a few seconds.

dipali said...

@usha maydum: Discomfort at being on first name terms with an unrelated female: maydum is the relationship of the workforce!
@monika: What about bhabhiji? That's the one that is most annoying- they are not even related to you, but to your husband!
@2b's Mommy: See how my thinking has changed over the years!
@mystic margarita: You have ages to wait before you become an Auntieji!
@the mad momma: You are probably referred to as the do bacchon waali amma.(Don't beat me up)I can't imagine anyone calling you Bhabhiji or even Maydum!
@space bar: do send the link. Should be interesting!
@preethi: occupational hazard of being called 'amma' by your kid!
Your neighbour sounds most unnecessarily defensive!
@phoenixritu: Untio sounds amazing!
@sur: Your mother is truly priceless! Now I know why I don't like the word 'madam'- this, the original meaning had got buried deep in the sub-conscious! I can see myself with a dreamy smile next time I hear it:)

sumana001 said...

My first comment on your blog though I am a regular reader. I love the confusion and state of indecision stamped on the faces of the salesmen just before the words come out of their mouth: "didi" or "boudi" - which one will be more effective? ... they can't avoid this binary, can they?

DotThoughts said...

Once, in India, one of Ajeya's old friends called me bhabi.. it was so endearing.. I demand to be part of the kinship too..

Anonymous said...

You can also never continue to deceive yourself that even as you grow older, you look the same. The day you change from the "Behenji" to "Auntieji", you know :(

manju said...

I stumbled upon your blog by accident. I just want to tell you that I love the way you write.

As to the question of how to address strangers, here in Mumbai it is always Behenji or Bhabhiji. I must say that I prefer Behenji.

Mandira said...

till now i was mostly called "didi" but a move to mumbai ensured i got the status of "aunty" over night.. i dont like it but i hv learnt to live with it..sigh.. at work all those who dont really know me call me "madam".. n that qualifies for a SUPER sigh..

dipali said...

@sumana001: Hi and welcome here. Yes, how to address an unknown female without giving offence- a big problem for salesmen!
@dottie: Move back to India- you'll be everyone's relative:)
@lekhni: I guess that's a defining moment:)
@manju: Nice to see you here! Yes, I'd prefer 'Behenji' too. Marital status not defined in that:)
@churningthewordmill: Don't be sad, it's a promotion!

Trishna said...

I havent been called auntie yet.. didi,beta,madam,yes.. but what took me by surprise was..when I was a young bride, one of S's colleague older to me by a good 8-10 years addressed me as bhabhi-ji! i used to be so embarassed every time he called me tht :P

Cuckoo said...

What about "Excuse me" and "Hello"? Except nobody sings it like Lionel Ritchie.. sigh! Oh and the sometimes names on the road when you don't hear them the first time... and "Ennanga" in Tamil translating loosely to "Aap"

Anonymous said...

Sur Notes comment reminded of an hilarious story of Sam Maneckshaw. He refused to called Indira Gandhi Madam and instead addressed her as Prime Minister or something like that. The Congress circle thought it disrespectful and asked him to change it. His reply, "Madam" for him was the owner of a house of ill-repute :D.
First time at your blog and very interesting.
- Uma

Sue said...


I think it's cute, myself. My mother and aunts measure their visible age by what they get called in Gariahat!

D said...

I know the hint of resentment that 'madam' sometimes is tinged with. But I prefer it anyday to bahuji, bhabhiji or bitiya!

Anonymous said...

I am from Singapore, growing up, we called everyone differently.

If it was an Malay man/woman--makcik and packcik.

If it was a Chinese old man/woman(60s)--amah and ah peck
if younger --uncle/aunty

If it was a Indian guy--annah(tamil for brother) like the roti prata guy would be called anaah.

When we visit India, I could never ever get use to calling shopkeepers/autowallahs bhaiya..never!